Monday, April 11, 2011


I've played the piano since I was eight years old. My teacher during most of the time I took lessons was a woman named Ruth Sweeney, and I adored her. She was (in my memory) tall and beautiful with perfect bone structure and creamy skin and strawberry blond hair, and she let me simply love playing. I played a little classical before she and I both realized that wasn't my forte and never would be, and she introduced me then to ragtime. That was my "fun" music. She also taught me how to be a better sight reader--how to play a piece through without stopping, even if I made mistakes. Just keep going. And then start all over again. And keep going all over again. Sight reading helped me immensely when I decided I wanted to be an accompanist for the school's show choirs and musicals. I was in my comfort zone behind the piano, and although there was much about high school I didn't love, I did love playing the piano.

Mrs. Sweeney moved out of state when I was sixteen, and I started lessons with a new teacher, fresh out of college. Rather than being enthusiastic, as a new teacher should be, she already seemed old and tired and beaten down by life. She had an entirely different approach, wanting me to focus more on classical music and on memorizing my pieces and on perfecting my pieces. Piano stopped being fun for me: I didn't like practicing or playing or recitals or receiving numbered scores for how well I did at competitions. How do you get a 97 for playing Schubert? How do you play a piece almost perfectly but not quite, not 100%, just 97%? How do you do anything in life outside of a math test or a multiple-choice exam and get a 97? It just seemed wrong to me: being graded on how well I did something that I only wanted to do because I enjoyed doing it--or used to enjoy doing it.

So I quit. But I didn't quit playing. I still played for school, still played for church choir, still played for myself. Even today, sitting at the piano and banging out (gently banging out, that is) my frustrations is therapy. I have a couple of Chopin pieces that hit the right emotion for me at times. But Ragtime is still my go-to music: Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, Tom Turpin. I like the syncopated rhythm, the freedom to hit a note off the beat rather than on it. I like that it's supposed to be "ragged"--a little imperfect, a little like jotting down the notes you hear in your head while watching someone who just wants to shout or dance or spin around without knowing the notes ahead of time. I love that people played ragtime for years before bothering to put it down on paper. You didn't read it or try to get it perfect. You just played until it felt perfect.

Most of Joplin's rags are in four movements, and the third is always the hardest. But he was kind enough to give us two shots to get the feel of each movement, as they all repeat once. The first time I sit down to play after being away from the piano for too long, I tend to stumble a little through each movement, and then something clicks as I repeat. I don't  perfect the piece, but I get it "righter."

And "righter" is enough for me, because that's where life is enjoyed: in doing what you want to do for the thrill of it all and not for the 97% score.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Fifteen or sixteen years ago, while working at Yale University Press, I sprained both ankles sliding down some steps at work. I was wearing jeans and leather Keds and was hurrying down to give something to somebody--papers, a book, I don't remember. Humiliating enough on its own, right? But add to that humiliation the fact that I landed at the feet of (a) the director and (b) the chief editor of the press. They helped me back to a standing, head-hanging position, and I swore to them I was okay, limped to my destination, and then returned to my desk, where the chief editor met me with an ice pack and lots of advice from his doctor wife about how to treat myself for the rest of the day.

I ignored the advice and went to the movies with my husband that night: "Jefferson in Paris." I don't remember much about the film, only about my ankles throbbing so badly throughout that I was nearly sweating. But I didn't want to leave the movie. We were on a tight budget, and leaving for any reason would've been wasteful.

I had to miss work the next day because I couldn't walk. Five days later, I finally went to the health center to get an x-ray. My right foot was swollen and purple and hideous. But it was "just " sprained.

A week later I re-sprained it going down the same stupid steps.

Two years ago, I sprained the same foot going down the steps of my house while carrying my youngest son. I went to the ER the next day, sure this time it was broken, but it wasn't. I did learn through that x-ray, however, that I had broken my foot at some point in the past and the bones on top had healed on their own.

Yesterday, heading down the back porch steps, wet from an afternoon of rain, I slipped and fell again. My foot isn't sprained this time, but it has a glorious lump and bruise on top and a scrape along the side.

I have a weak foot. It's time to admit that and act accordingly. I have to be more careful, more aware of what I'm doing.

A couple of days ago, an ex contacted me to ask why I'd unfriended him on Facebook. We had a non-completely-unpleasant exchange in which I explained why, we wished each other well, and then both went on our merry ways.

We all have weaknesses--weak parts--that we have to take into consideration in our daily routines. We can try to strengthen them through exercise, but sometimes exercise isn't the 'cure' and avoidance is. A fall down the steps might not result in a sprained or twisted ankle, but it can remind us of that sprain or twist through a bruise or a scrape or just embarrassment at our clumsiness and carelessness. We don't need to avoid the steps, but we can always watch our footing.